"It's crazy, I thought I would never leave Portland," Johnny Jewel explains from his new home in Montreal, as he prepares to depart for an Italians Do it Better showcase in Istanbul. My apologies for so many locales in a single opening sentence, but the act of tracking down the globe-trekking Jewel has become a chore as of late, given the meteoric rise of his various musical endeavors.
Istanbul is just one of the many cities where Jewel's signature brand of vintage disco pop has taken hold, unhinging the rigid cynicism of music hipsterdom and introducing a new generation of sweltering dance floor patrons to his thick beats and the soft coo of longtime Glass Candy partner, Ida No. Italians Do it Better is Jewel's label—co-owned with Troubleman Unlimited's Mike Simonetti—which is run with a fierce DIY streak and a refusal to compromise so strict it could make even the most strident punk label blush. Portland, that's Jewel's former hometown, and Montreal, well, that's the future.
"When we started seeing the world, it was 100 percent culture shock. We had no idea what to expect, we tried to soak it all up, but it was impossible to assimilate. I freaked out in Australia and almost threw myself out of a 15th floor hotel window, and Ida developed what we now joke about as 'post tourdom depression,'" Jewel explains, while talking about Glass Candy's relentless touring demands, which eventually led to his move across the border.
"To go through your whole life being too poor to ever leave the continent, then all the sudden you wake up in Moscow with a bottle of Cristal, or trying to make it through customs in Paris for sound check, it really fucks with your head," Jewel continues. "I knew I needed to take a month off with a drum machine, a synth, and a tape machine in a city that wasn't Portland. We did a show in Montreal last November, and I felt energized by the air. I knew I had to come back."
While in Montreal, Jewel crossed paths with singer Megan Louise, which led to his latest project, Desire. "She was the voice I had been looking for," he explains. "I had been working on Desire material for two years, just waiting to find the right singer for the project." Convinced, Jewel found an apartment the following day. Desire—who will perform their third show ever as part of the Italians Do it Better showcase at Rotture—follows along the lines of Chromatics, the enigmatic pop outfit that flicked out late last year. But unlike the Chromatics' art-pop strut, which centered on the icy croon of Ruth Radelet, Desire is firmly entrenched in bilingual Montreal. "It's really poppy like the Chromatics," says Jewel, before adding, "Megan sings in French and English, about half and half."
As for Glass Candy, it's been a lifetime since they were the art-punk band covering Josie Cotton's "Johnny Are You Queer?" in the basement of Fast Forward. The band has etched out a niche as the forerunners of modern Italo disco, a slithering assembly of bouncy dance grooves mired in Jewel's dark production and capped with Ida No's slinking voice. They are the less innocent, if not downright decadent, version of Sweden's Sally Shapiro, and they've created an unflinching disco genre entirely of their own, one that flourishes in the dim club, but flinches under the spotlight. It's damaged disco, an all-too-human dance affair steeped with Xanadu disco excess, descended from the grim reality of electronic pioneers Suicide.
Glass Candy's newfound popularity isn't lost on Jewel: "I think the main reason we're blowing up now isn't because of aesthetics. Kids are always going to be kids, no matter what suit the music is wearing." He continues, "Art is only a reflection of what people already know and feel. The less polluted you can make your art, the more people are going to be able to connect to it. There are a million scenes, and the artists leading all those scenes all have one thing in common: the ability to communicate a clear idea.
"Us finally learning how to play our instruments helped a little, too," Jewel says. Glass Candy's instrument-playing ability should be evident on Body Work, their forthcoming album. But slow your roll—the record is still a long time coming: "We're taking our time with it," Jewel explains. "One of the reasons Glass Candy has been able to last is because Ida and myself really respect the art's need to be distilled. You can't work on it all the time, you'd kill it."